The Hateful Eight may be the year’s most accurate movie title. An exciting cast of Quentin Tarantino regulars and Jennifer Jason Leigh headline this film and they are colourful, memorable, vital and challenging but they are not to the very last one of them likeable. This will prove to be the director’s most divisive and unloved film since Death Proof which at the very least had those incredible car stunts, Zoe Bell doing her thing and the words of poet Robert Frost.
We open on a stage coach wagon making its way through a snowy landscape trying to outrun a blizzard. Given the urgency of the situation, the film is wonderfully slow paced in this opening and throughout. The camera moves at normal speed, the dialogue is relaxed and the music is given space to play out rather than repeat a drumming chorus alongside quick cut editing. It is a neat reminder that genre films can engage in build-up and not always be a slave to pumping up the volume. Bounty Hunter John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell) is inside the stagecoach with his bounty Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whom he is taking to Red Rock to hang for her crimes. Unable to outrun the blizzard he is hoping to make it to a lodge named Minnie’s Haberdashery in time to bed down until it passes. Along the way they pick up another Bounty Hunter Major Marquis Warner (Samuel L. Jackson) with his own dead bounty and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be travelling to Red Rock to take up his newly appointed post as Sherriff of the town. Mannix and Warner were on opposite sides of the Civil War so there is already tension in the air when Ruth agrees to take them both into his coach.
When they reach Minnie’s Haberdashery, Minnie is not there but there are a host of other characters in the form of Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir) running the lodge in Minnie’s absence, Oswaldo Mobray the Hangman (Tim Roth), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) a cowboy and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern) a former Confederate General. At this point the story having been mostly confined to the interior of the wagon is now mostly confined to the interior of the cabin while being filmed in 70mm. While this may seem an indulgence on the part of Tarantino the larger lenses allow for more detail to show up in the background and in the expressions of faces that might be hiding secrets.
The filmmaker has staged two great interrogation sequences in his recent movies, shot elegantly with no music and revelling in the intelligence of the characters as well as their physical positioning. The Hateful Eight plays like a feature film version of these memorable scenes, so much on display is done well as effectively the tale of a murder mystery is played out. Audience members may pay close attention to see if they can foresee an upcoming reveal or figure out ahead of other characters whom can be trusted.
All of what people have grown to love about Tarantino is alive here, witty dialogue, cartoonish violence and shock value storytelling. Something is not quite right though, the balance is off. At the end of Django Unchained white masters were shot and blown across the room in a splash of crimson. I laughed at it along with everybody else in the audience because I could recognise it was over the top but also because the victims of the violence had it coming to them. Here Jennifer Jason Leigh is repeatedly smashed in the face, her eyes blaze defiantly and her demeanour harkens back to the indestructibility of a Looney Tunes cartoon. We are told she is dangerous and a criminal but we are not shown it and I grew uncomfortable at the attempt to make humour out of being violent towards the only onscreen actress. There is more involving oral rape which may or may not have taken place but I suspect, without providing a likeable protagonist carrying out extreme vengeance like previous Tarantino films did, all the cruelty takes on a darker edge. Said victims of violence may have it coming but we aren’t really shown it and while white slave owners or Nazis carry enough cultural inference to not have their sins displayed onscreen here there is no comparable shorthand here. It’s difficult with just one person but I moved on rather quick from Buck of Kill Bill when his fate was revealed. The barbarity of his actions and his death trouble me less given justice had been served. Alas there is no The Bride to rally around in this film. That creates a challenge for the audience even if Tarantino is being honest here, after all he didn’t title the film “The Hateful 7 and the Somewhat Justified 1”. I have seen some troubling nihilistic films in my day which I respected for their brutality and message. Tarantino has a message in this film and the message is that America was borne out of savagery, injustice and robbery. Yet the ideals that the country’s common folk coated themselves in like freedom, civilisation and brotherhood will ultimately project us forward closer to their fruition every year. We’re getting there and that is not a bad sentiment and it is not lacking in ambition to want to tell a stylish rather than realistic tale nevertheless rooted in these hard truths. The Proposition, an Australian western for example dealt with similar themes and while slightly less violent was even more brutal because it played more realistically. For a more positive review on The Hateful Eight which I think makes good points please click here.
I can’t dismiss this film outright because it lacks a central likeable lead. The performances are stellar. Some characters don’t get arcs you expect or even their stories fully told but that is okay if it creates unpredictability in the plot. Too many narratives now play to too many rules and conventions straight out of arts majors. Samuel L. Jackson by the way is stone cold brilliant in this film, possibly the greatest character Quentin has ever written for him. Kurt Russell too comes in with his John Wayne cadence, hard demeanour and reveals both a viciousness and naivety we don’t get to often see from him. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays up the physical comedy of her character but like the rest of the cast there is a great deal that will be revealed throughout the course of the film. Walter Goggins might just get the biggest arc but I enjoyed Bruce Dern and Tim Roth just as much.
The film moves at a slow pace for 3 hours but I wouldn’t say it is too long. One scene played as an introduction for a whole raft of new victims that seemed pointless until it became obvious that the scene showed the bonds of certain characters before tearing them apart. The choice to shoot in 70mm is neither a bad or good choice, merely an interesting one for a film that is mostly bound to one set. Ennio Morricone’s music fulfils its purpose but does not remain after you leave the theatre.
I can’t fault a lot of Tarantino’s work here and I’m still of the opinion that Quentin Tarantino is one of the great filmmakers of my generation but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this movie. If this film is designed to enrage then the understated The Big Short and Spotlight are far more moving and thought provoking. If The Hateful Eight is not designed to enrage but to merely make fun of the absurdity of how cruel we are to each other well then I’m sorry Quentin, I get the joke but I’m not laughing.